But that first visit to mid-summer Hong Kong and the Chinese hinterland came as a shock: the sweltering heat, the blaring noise and strong odours of back-alley restaurants, and the bustling markets with all these faces staring at me – I still remember gazing out of the window of my skyscraper hotel and recognising that a life-changing experience had just begun.
It took only a few more visits to realise I had been bitten by the “China bug”– I started to like the high pace and energy of life and work, the culture of getting things done. I started learning Mandarin, and in 2008 – to the considerable concern of some of our family and friends - my partner and I decided to quit our jobs, lease cars, and retirement plans, and move to China. To break out of our comfort zone and go for opportunities in a country that was, at the time, the world’s centre stage: it was the year of the Beijing Summer Olympics.
My partner landed a dream job at the best international school in Beijing, and I was lucky to find a role running the China branch of Yourzine, a Dutch internet marketing agency looking to export its success to the “massive” markets of the Middle Kingdom. I also soon found myself moonlighting as food critic, leveraging my experience as freelance writer for Dutch newspapers. Crisscrossing Beijing from one restaurant to the next on my e-scooter, I met chefs and savoured the fantastic tastes of China’s many cuisines.
It was a steep learning curve: people, communication, business – whatever works in the West mostly works very differently in China. But there are also so many rewards: meeting all these smart and resourceful Chinese and expatriates who helped me become a better, more flexible and resilient person (also known as “Beijing material”: impervious to heat, cold, smog and ruthless competition…). Enjoying life in one of the most fast-paced, tech-savvy countries in the world, with services (yes!) and infrastructure second to none, where there is always a solution (or a workaround) to any problem. And yes, learning Chinese really is tough. But being able to communicate in Mandarin opens the door to 1.4 billion new friends!
Still, the winds of change have been blowing relentlessly: Yourzine, Facebook, Google and Uber have all left China, and recently even MacDonald’s – which was hugely successful here in the 2000’s – sold 80% of its stake to local partners. As the world changes, so does China; becoming more proud and protective of its local brands while also trying to expand abroad, economically and politically, claiming its place among the top ranking global powers.
Beijing and Hong Kong have become expensive places to live, while the days of well-endowed expatriate packages are gone. Where Western expats leave, Chinese returnees and new friends of China from Asia, Africa and South America fill the void.
In my current role, I have been able to broaden my horizon beyond China and work remotely with customers and talented teams in China, Singapore, India, Japan… all the way down to Australia.
When people ask me how long I plan to stay in China, I can never think of an answer. Long-term planning is impossible in China, even for the Chinese. Then again, is it really possible to plan ahead anywhere these days?